SI Vault
Jack Olsen
April 18, 1966
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., a man-child as prejudiced as the stiff-necked bigots he professes to detest, was unusual almost from the day he was born. Sensitive, troubled and inquisitive, he was dominated by a father who was a miniature volcano. But he was also influenced by a clan of hardworking, talented relatives
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April 18, 1966

Growing Up Scared In Louisville

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., a man-child as prejudiced as the stiff-necked bigots he professes to detest, was unusual almost from the day he was born. Sensitive, troubled and inquisitive, he was dominated by a father who was a miniature volcano. But he was also influenced by a clan of hardworking, talented relatives

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Cassius Jr.'s life to me was an unusual one from other Children, and he is still Unusual to day," his mother, Odessa Grady Clay, observed in a handwritten biographical sketch of her son, the world heavyweight boxing champion. Mrs. Clay might have said that the whole family is unusual. For one thing, although they are Negroes, they claim to be directly descended from Henry Clay, "the great arbitrator," that troubled and perplexing figure in American history. "Henry Clay was Cassius' great-great-grandfather, and that's no family legend," says the fighter's aunt, Mrs. Mary Clay Turner, a mathematics teacher in a Louisville junior high school. "My mother and daddy told us about Henry Clay, and he left my grandfather a lot of money when he died." On young Clay's maternal side there is another white man in his lineage: the champion's great-grandfather was an Irishman named Grady. On top of her bureau Odessa Grady Clay keeps a photograph of the Irishman's mulatto son, her father; the fading portrait shows a dignified-looking man with light skin, long hair and pale eyes. "He looked exactly like a white man," said Odessa, who is a pale golden color herself.

The fact that he is at least three-sixteenths white does not please black supremacist Cassius Clay Jr., also known as Muhammad Ali. "My white blood came from the slave masters, from raping," he once explained to a racially mixed audience. "The white blood harms us, it hurts us. When we was darker, we was stronger. We was purer."

It is not too fanciful to suppose that the Clays of Louisville ( Cassius Clay's father and mother and multitudes of uncles and aunts and his 33 cousins) might be waltzing to Lester Lanin or working on charity drives in Louisville's highest society if they were of another color. Flair and energy and a degree of class emanate from almost all of them, down to the smallest children of the clan. There is hardly an adult Clay who does not hold at least two jobs and dabble in a variety of hobbies and outside interests such as painting and Haydn and cabinetmaking and geometric function theory. Your Clays of Louisville are a doing family, alert and active, bright-eyed and intelligent, quick as chipmunks. But, most of all, they are a proud family. Pride is the common denominator of the meatcutting Clay, the signpainting Clay, the schoolteaching Clay, the haircutting Clay and, almost to a fault, the prizefighting Clay.

"There was a lot of trouble, bad trouble, between his father and mother," one of Cassius Clay's early backers recalls, "but Cassius would bite his tongue before he'd mention it. He had too much pride. When he was fighting prelims on salary, he suddenly told Angelo Dundee that he had to have the money to go home right away, all the way back to Louisville from Miami. He'd gotten word his mother and father were gonna split up, and he was gonna go back and stop it. But Angelo was the only person he told, because Angelo wasn't gonna let him leave without knowing the reason. It's a very attractive quality in Cassius, not talking about his personal troubles. He'd talk about his ambitions and dreams but not his problems. Those were kept inside as a matter of family pride. They still are."

Pride motivates the Clays of Louisville on many levels. It has motivated some of them right through college, others to spend long hours in self-improvement courses at home, all of them to keep their houses a little cleaner, a little neater than the next man's. Aunt Coretta Clay, a short, bright sparrow of a woman who was a factor in Cassius' upbringing, says, "There's some people that say colored people are plain old lazy, they don't want anything. You put new houses for 'em on this street and in no time it's just gonna be all slummed up again, because they don't care. Well, you should have seen this house when we moved into it in 1940—no trees, no paint, yard had nothing in it, no grass, no anything. The brick was just black with dirt, the mortar was old and rotten, and Cassius' granddaddy was living then and he taught us, and we put on overalls after we finished work every day and we would scrape all the old mortar out and we got some tools and we tuck-pointed the whole place. About seven of us at home then, and we did the whole thing in about six weeks. And then we plastered and papered the inside."

While Coretta Clay spoke in the front room of her frame house in Louisville's West End, the matriarch of the family, 75-year-old Mrs. Herman Clay, busied herself at the end of a broom, sweeping up dust that was not evident to the naked eye. "The Clays don't spend much time sitting around," said Coretta. "We're all active. I don't mean to be braggin'." She offered some of her nutty fudge, one of the treats she makes ("anything that'll make you fat!") and sells to neighborhood kids. "My nutty fudge won a blue ribbon at the Kentucky State Fair," she said with typical Clay pride. "Second premium, culinary, 1964." She shifted to a note of regret. "They said I woulda won first prize, but I put nuts on the inside and outside, and they were just supposed to be on the inside only." Whenever a Clay fails to win first prize, you are going to hear an explanation.

Mrs. Odessa Clay's biography of her son, the fighter, continued in ink on three-hole lined notebook paper: "When a baby he would never sit down. When I would take him for a stroll in his stroller, he would always stand up and try to see every thing. The only thing he was afraid of when a Baby was a fur piece. He tried to talk at a very early age. he tried so hard He learn to walk at 10 months old. When he was one year Old he would love for some One to rock him to sleep, if not he wold sit in a Chair and Keep Bumping his head on the back of the Chair until he would go to sleep. He did not want you to dress him or undress him. He would alway's crie. He wanted to feed himself when very young. At the age of 2 years old he always got up at 5 OClock in the morning and throw every thing Out of the Dresser's draw and leave the things in the Middle of the floor. He loved to play in water. He loved to talks a lots and love to eat, loved to climb up on things. He would not play with his toyes. He would take all the Pots and pan Out of the Cabienet and beat on them. He Could beat on any thing and get rythm. When a very small Child he walked upon his toes, By doing this he has Well developed Arch's, and that is why he is so fast on his feet."

Odessa Grady Clay is not a Clay by birth, but she has absorbed some Clayness through the years. A kindly, endearing woman who is always fighting weight and losing, she discourses on her son Cassius as though she were talking about George Washington, and she can go for hours telling the kind of stories only a mother could love.

"Yes, sir, what I wrote there, it's perfectly true," she said in her high, mellifluous voice, with some of her sentences ending, Southern-belle style, on a rising inflection. "He walked way up on his toes, and he didn't quit that tippin' till he was 5 years old, and his grandfather said, ' Odessa, he's marking you walking in high-heeled shoes!' He'd go way up on his toes? Oh, he was a unusual child all his life. So if people will read his early life they'll understand why he is like he is, I guess. He was queer? You never did see a child like him before. He was somethin' else! Whoo-ee!"

Odessa shook her head with the wonder of it all. "When he was young he always wanted to play with children that were older, and he wanted to be the boss," she continued. "And he called his little brother, Rudolph, his baby? If I had to whip Rudolph, Cassius'd run and hit me and say, 'Don't you whip my baby!' And he'd put his arms around Rudolph and walk him away and say to him, 'She better let you alone.'

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